Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic Party’s newest rock star, appears to believe that the negative attention she has received from people on the right is a function of the threat she represents to their political preeminence. As Charles C.W. Cooke ably demonstrated in National Review, nothing could be further from the truth. Republicans surely hope that she keeps talking without interruption between now and Election Day.
Ocasio-Cortez’s habit of advertising stereotypically profligate and invasive progressive shibboleths has tended so far to be limited to cable-television interviews, and she could perhaps be given some leeway for having to think on the fly. But she has no excuse for her latest instant classic, which was written down, edited, and published with what was presumably some forethought. “New York City is experiencing the highest rate of homelessness since the Great Depression,” she wrote. “For every 1 person experiencing homelessness here, there are ~3 vacant apartments.”
This bizarre and frankly irrelevant observation would not have crossed my transom if it wasn’t for the fact-checking venue PolitiFact, which performed the kind of friendly logical gymnastics it reserves only for Democrats to assure me that this was the articulation of a perfectly valid policy proposal. That is to say, if it weren’t for PolitiFact, I’d have assumed that Ocasio-Cortez was only clearing her throat toward no nobler end than posturing as self-righteous for her fans. These helpful fact-checkers have bent over backward to convince me otherwise. The appropriation of housing to redistribute to the homeless in New York City is, indeed, a genuine and achievable policy proposal.
PolitiFact determined that there are approximately 62,000 homeless individuals in New York City, and there are 79,190 empty units on the market today in the city. If they were simply appropriated by the government, sacrificing all the capital and labor dedicated to their construction and maintenance in the process and making no qualitative distinctions between available apartments, you could theoretically fill these units with homeless people. And since many homeless individuals are part of a family, that would seemingly justify Ocasio-Cortez’s claim.
Oddly, PolitiFact also expanded the pool of available units to include vacant apartments, including those units that are the sporadically occupied conveniences of the “the super-duper-well-to-do,” undergoing renovation, held pending sales, or held pending a legal dispute. According to one expert’s ominous euphemism, the number of apartments in private hands could decrease dramatically “with a few nudges or tweaks of the law.”
Viola! PolitiFact found, “in the main,” Ocasio-Cortez’s math holds up. But the question remains: Do they think they are helping the self-described Democratic Socialist from Queens? The non-sequitur she fired off into the ether of Twitter was designed only to signal her good intentions. She surely wasn’t advocating for a Bolshevist program of dividing the property of the wealthy up into Kommunalka. Right? After all, no sentient person with even a tenuous grasp of the problem of homelessness in New York City—a problem that has only been exacerbated by Ocasio-Cortez’s comrade in Gracie Mansion—could think this was a reasonable policy.
The city has seen costs associated with housing the homeless soar since New York abandoned Mike Bloomberg-era incentives for shelter operators to place families with independent housing. The average shelter stays increased significantly under de Blasio, up to an average of 550 days for adult couples without children. “More than 71,000 homeless have exited shelter under de Blasio, according to the city, which plans to update performance metrics for providers,” a report from the Manhattan Institute read. What’s more, the city is throwing billions into shelter construction even though, as of May, “61,945 homeless people, including 15,023 homeless families with 22,538 homeless children” were sleeping each night in a municipal shelter. That’s an 85 percent increase from 10 years ago.
How does New York City come up with those figures? The city performs an exhaustive count of not just the homeless population but the services available to them, even going so far as to pay hundreds of performers to behave as the homeless to see if census takers catch them. Last year, it was estimated that only 5 percent of the city’s homeless population was unsheltered, and that was almost entirely by choice. The fact is that a small portion of the homeless population in New York City takes no advantage of supportive housing because they have a history of incarceration, drug addiction, or mental illness despite the services available to them. For this relatively small homeless population, being on the street is preferable to support and care.
Ocasio-Cortez didn’t seem to know any of this. PolitiFact didn’t seem to care. Instead, both seemed more interested in making a political point about the city’s capacity to dissolve the bonds of private property by appropriating the ill-begotten gains of the landowners and redistributing them. It can only be a threat because it’s certainly not a new idea. “There is already a sufficient quantity of houses in the big cities to remedy immediately all real ‘housing shortage,’ provided they are used judiciously,” Friedrich Engels wrote in 1872. “This can naturally only occur through the expropriation of the present owners and by quartering in their houses homeless workers or workers overcrowded in their present homes.” Conservatives who accuse Ocasio-Cortez of flirting with Marxism are not exaggerating.
Between Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s inflated sense of her own intelligence and political acumen and her economic illiteracy, Democrats are going to find themselves increasingly uncomfortable with their party’s newest celebrity. By contrast, conservatives cannot believe their luck.